Category Archives: Environment

Riversearch December 2016: jeweled birds

The day was overcast, and the trees lining the river were bare, looking almost desolate. As soon as I got down to the river for my Riversearch survey on the final day of 2016, I felt convinced that I would see a kingfisher.

The river level was quite low, and relatively clear for a change. No signs of pollution. My winter surveys are always the most thorough. The impenetrable barricade of nettles and brambles had died back enough for me to get much closer to the river than normal.

As far as the survey goes, there was little to report (which is good, but not interesting). I was rewarded for tearing myself away from the fireside by a glimpse of a kingfisher, the most spectacular of British birds. But that wasn’t all. As I retraced my steps, back to the car, I spotted my first ever goldcrest. I was very excited about this, as I have long wanted to see one.

As though the kingfisher and goldcrest hadn’t provided enough colour to make up for the dullness of the day, a pair of bright green ring-necked parakeets also made a show.

It was as though nature was reminding me that although 2016 may have felt pretty bleak, there were bright spots in it. As I start 2017, uncertain what it will bring,  I will look out for beauty.

Looking back at 2016

I’m looking forward to shaking the dust of 2016 from my sandals. But it hasn’t all been bad. Here are my highlights and lowlights from the year.

Highlights

I find January pretty tough – I’m not a fan of cold, and the lack of light gets me down. So a fun day out at the British Wildlife Centre with my fellow members of Surrey Dormouse Group was a welcome relief.

Fluffed-up bluetit roosting in our camera nest box
Fluffed-up bluetit roosting in our camera nest box

I love spring, and seeing the bluetits start to build a nest in my camera nest box meant the return home each day was exciting – what’s happened today?!

My Wild Garden 2016 challenge kept me busy over the year, as each month I tried to make my garden better for wildlife. For the first time this year I fed live mealworms to the birds – it was great seeing how well this went down with them, and something I’ll do again in 2017. We also installed an insect house, and it was great watching the bees move in. Perhaps my favourite Wild Garden activity of the year was creating the Bog Garden – lots of digging involved, but worth it. I’m looking forward to seeing how it does this year, now the plants have had a chance to bed in and grow.

Bee on loosestrife in the bog garden

Bee on loosestrife in the bog garden

As always, it’s a delight to watch hedgehogs in the garden, and even more exciting (and entertaining) to watch their courtship.

Dr C gave me a great new toy – a macro lens, and I’ve enjoyed experimenting with that over the year. The Macrophotography course I did with Adrian Davies was particularly helpful. Some of the images I took that day even featured in my 2017 calendar!

Gatekeeper(?) butterfly on bramble flower
Butterfly on bramble flower

It’s been a good year for my dormouse site. In one box check we had 9 dormice (including 7 youngsters crammed into one box!), and we’ve now had dormouse activity in every part of the site, which is great news.

16g dormouse found in May
16g dormouse found in May

And it’s great that the Paris Agreement on Climate Change has now come into force. On a smaller scale, it’s lovely to hear that the beavers on the River Otter are breeding.

Lowlights

Work has been very tough this year (particularly in the first half of the year), so this blog has taken a bit of a back seat for a while. It’s frustrating, as I’ve loads of things I wanted to tell you about, and lots of photos and videos that need editing.

It’s not been a great year for my garden birds – the Big Garden Birdwatch in January, when we saw only one bird. The bluetits that started to build their nest in the camera nest box soon abandoned it. And when I looked at the data over the year from June 2015 to May 2016, it confirmed that we’ve had far fewer birds than normal.

The referendum result was staggering, and, to me, hugely disappointing. It’s still not clear how it will affect many things, including our laws for protecting wildlife and the environment. The whole campaign was a bit of a disaster – even those campaigning for remain failed to make a case on the positive things that EU membership has brought this country, including cleaner rivers, beaches and air, and protection for species like dormice. One thing is clear: we need make sure whatever happens next does not damage this protection.

2016 has seen a lot of beloved public figures die. Among them, perhaps the most famous tiger in the world: Machli, the lady of the lake. I was lucky enough to see her in the wild, back in 2006. She has had a long life for a tiger, and brought up many youngsters that will continue her legacy. But it’s still sad to think she is no longer ruling the temples and lakes of Ranthambore.

Bengal tiger
Machli

Let’s hope next year brings peace, reconciliation and restoration between people, and between humans and nature.

In which I moan about light pollution on the darkest day of the year

Today’s the shortest day of the year, so it may seem churlish to spend it complaining about light. But don’t get me wrong – it’s not sunlight I have a problem with. I can vaguely remember what it’s like, and I’m keen to renew the acquaintance. It’s light pollution that I want to talk about today.

It’s obvious how water pollution can harm wildlife – the dramatic decline of the otter in the mid 20th century is a well known example. And we’re hearing more about the health effects air pollution has for humans (and presumably wildlife are affected too). But there’s less awareness of the problem of light pollution.

Last week there was a story on the BBC website about how robins’ behaviour is affected by light pollution. A study by Southampton University found that robins that lived closer to lit paths and noisy roads were much lower down this dominance hierarchy – the birds in these territories displayed less aggressively.

Robins aren’t the only creatures affected by light pollution. Other birds, reptiles, amphibians, moths and bats are also affected negatively. But some species can adapt to make the most of it, like the common redshank, getting longer to feed because of artificial lights.

Another disadvantage of light pollution is that it stops us seeing so many stars. Where I live, in a street-lit town, I’m never going to see the Milky Way. On holidays to more remote, darker places, the stars at night take my breath away.

Light pollution is a subject that’s too close to home for me. My bedroom overlooks a recently refurbished office building that’s floodlit throughout the night, meaning that, despite the blackout lining of my curtains, my bedroom never properly gets dark.

In some places things are being done to reduce light pollution. The funding cuts for councils means many are now looking to save money (and reduce carbon emissions) by turning off street lighting in residential roads late at night. In fact, my council are introducing this to the town I live in next month. My road is a major traffic route, so the lights will stay on. But other, quieter roads, will have their lights turned off between midnight and 5am in the morning. Hopefully this will benefit at least some of the local wildlife and residents.

As for me, I’m looking forward to a trip west, where night will be dark, and, if the skies are clear, I’ll be able to see the Milky Way.

Meeting my MP for #SpeakUp Week of Action on climate change

It’s not a huge secret that my political views are left of centre. Over the years I have met a few MPs about various  issues. But I have always struggled to put my point across effectively to Conservatives. How do you communicate with someone who doesn’t share any of your values? I knew I needed a different approach when meeting my MP for the Speak Up Week of Action on climate change.

My MP is a Tory with all the confidence a 25,000 vote majority gives. My previous attempts at communicating with him have not been massively successful. You can see his voting record on climate change – it didn’t fill me with hope that this was likely to be a productive meeting. But I remember one speaker at an eco church event telling us never to give up on our MP. So I needed to come up with a plan of how to persuade him.

In preparation for the Week of Action, the Climate Coalition organised a webinar focusing on how to talk to MPs from the centre right about climate change. It was massively helpful, emphasising the need to think about what they value, and how tackling climate change relates to that. They also talked about not using language that will automatically put them off.

Inspired by the webinar, I met with John and Roger (fellow Christians with a concern for environmental justice) to discuss our strategy. The plan was that we would all meet the MP together. Each of us would talk about why we care about climate change, using language that would speak to the MP’s values (protecting the landscape of where we live, leaving a positive legacy, and action on climate change making sense financially as well as environmentally). We would then ask him to write to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, calling on him to publish an ambitious low carbon investment plan.

Confident we had a good plan, I emailed  the MP’s researcher to double check the arrangements. It was at that stage I learnt that only I would be allowed to see the MP. This was a blow. Added to the fact that my MP only holds surgeries on a Friday afternoon, meaning that I had to take time off work to meet him, it gave the impression that he’s not terribly keen on meeting his constituents. I felt that this was an attempt to give him the upper hand, making me determined not to be phased.

One of the points the webinar encouraged us to make was that we speak for the ‘silent majority’. People are concerned about climate change, and want the government to act. Now, that’s easy to say, but harder to back up, especially to a sceptical Tory. The turnout at the nature walk was a bit disappointing. Hardly convincing evidence of the strength of feeling in the constituency. Luckily we had another string to our bow. We were able to get almost 100 signatures for the big green heart at church, calling on our MP to take action. That gave me confidence to go into the meeting knowing that I was speaking on behalf of many others.

Another of the top tips the webinar gave was to dress in a way your MP would respect, so I dressed in my smartest work dress, and walked across town carrying the big green heart.

The meeting went as well as could be expected. He listened while I said my bit. I refused to be riled when he said a couple of things that I suspect were meant to provoke me. Generally his body language was quite defensive. The bit of the conversation he really engaged with was when I told him my solar panels were generating more electricity than we use each year.

He didn’t agree to write to the Secretary of State, but said he would forward on a letter if I sent one to him. At the end I asked if he had any message for the people who had signed the heart. He said to tell them that he was “on side”. Time will tell if his voting record on climate change improves. But even if he just looks into getting solar panels on his house, that will at least be some progress.

There’s a parable in the Bible about a widow who gets an unjust judge to give her justice because of her persistence (to shut her up).  Climate change isn’t going away, so perhaps she provides a useful example to follow when dealing with MPs whose actions don’t match the importance of the issue.

#SpeakUp Week of Action nature walk

Last week was the Climate Coalition’s Week of Action on climate change. People across the country got together to let their MPs know that they care about climate change. As part of it, I organised a nature walk for the Mole Valley constituency.

Organising a walk in October is rather risky, so Roger (who helped me promote the event) and I were both praying hard for good weather. And our prayers were answered: it was lovely and sunny as we gathered, and the rain held off until the end of the walk.

On our nature walk in the Surrey Hills
On our nature walk in the Surrey Hills

One of the ranger team at a nearby National Trust property had volunteered to lead the walk, which was great. Stu told us about the different trees we encountered, and how the rangers plan for the long term, planting trees now to replace those that will die in the next 100 years. I think we all learnt something, as well as having a very pleasant stroll in the beautiful Surrey Hills.

An example of Ash dieback: the top of this tree is dead
An example of Ash dieback – look at the top of this tree

Things I learnt:

 

  • beech trees have very shallow roots
  • stinking iris leaves smell of beef crisps
  • what Ash dieback looks like
  • you need to plan decades ahead when looking after an estate
  • one little pot of Rodda’s clotted cream was enough for my big scone, after all

Our MP wasn’t able to make it, but we knew that in good time, so have a plan. Three of us have an appointment to meet him at his surgery next week. We’ll present him with a big green heart with pictures people have sent me of things they care about that will be affected by climate change. The local Brownies have contributed, as have kids at church. We’ll also include some photos from the walk. We just need to work out what to say to persuade him to vote for action on climate change.

The intrepid walkers with the big green heart
The intrepid walkers with the big green heart

It was quite a lot of work, organising the walk, particularly promoting it to local groups and the local paper. I don’t think it played to my strengths. My efforts weren’t spectacularly successful, but the crucial bit will be meeting the MP.

Riversearch September 2016

As usual, I left my Riversearch check for last quarter til the last possible day. When I saw it was raining on the morning I had booked off work to do it,  I had no option other than to waterproof up and get on with it.

The river itself was looking less turbid than usual, and I even managed to spot a fish. The woodland around it is starting to look autumnal. I discovered that conkers make a wonderful plop when they fall from the tree to the river.  It was happening so frequently that I got nervous standing beneath the horse chestnut tree, and only had time to gather a couple of conkers before scurrying away from the risk of being hit on the head by one.

Autumn berries
Autumn berries
Fine fungus
Fine fungus

The stinging nettles were still abundant and high, so I was glad of my intrepid stick.

Someone has clearly had a go at clearing some of the Himalayan Balsam. There were still a couple of stands of it, but for most of the stretch it was just the odd plant here and there.

There wasn’t much wildlife on view – most animals seemed to be keeping hidden in the dry somewhere. And other people were in short supply as well. Very sensible.

The next riversearch check I do will be quite different, with more of the river accessible as the foliage dies down. Let’s hope we can get through this autumn and winter without the floods we had a couple of years ago.

For the love of… How do I persuade my MP we need to do more to tackle climate change? 

I need your advice: how do I persuade my MP (a Tory with a huge majority) to push the government to ratify the Paris climate change agreement?

The background

In October this year, the Climate Coalition are holding a week of action. They’re encouraging people around the country to invite their MPs to events which demonstrate how much people care about climate change. They want people to share how the things they love will be affected by climate change. The ultimate aim is to encourage MPs to support ratification of the Paris climate change agreement.

I feel like this is something I have to do, but I don’t know how.

My MP

My MP is a Conservative with a huge majority. According to TheyWorkForYou.com, he generally votes against measures to reduce climate change. At a hustings I attended last year he said he thinks the UK is doing enough to combat climate change. My encounters with him so far have not been productive; he doesn’t share my views and has no need to win my vote. He’s not interested in the scientific evidence on a subject, if it goes against his own views (most of us are guilty of that failing, but I would like to believe government policy is informed by evidence).

Planning the event

I think it’s important that it focuses on the emotional side as my MP isn’t likely to change his mind based on science. This is challenging to me, as my day job is all about trying to get scientific evidence into policy. But the focus of the week of action, ‘For the love of’ should help keep me away from the dry facts.

I have a few ideas of what the event could be:

  • A walk in some of the beautiful countryside where we live (maybe risky in October?)
  • An exhibition of art on the ‘For the love of’ theme (I’ve no idea how to organise an exhibition, but I like the idea)
  • A talk from a local expert on the wildlife in our constituency
  • Some kind of combination of the above

My vicar has agreed to it being a church event, so I have access to a venue, and there are lots of talented artists I could involve if we went for the second option. I could try to make contact  with some other local groups who may be interested in climate change.

Of course, organising an event is one thing, but getting the MP to come along is crucial. What sort of event do you think would be best for showing my MP that his constituents care about climate change?

Riversearch June 2016: Alien invader – Japanese Knotweed

The main challenge with my Riversearch survey in June was seeing the river – since my previous survey, the plants along the riverbank. have shot up. There were stinging nettles taller than me, and inpenetrable thickets of bramble blocking me from getting close to the river in many places. Still, I did manage the occassional glimpse of the river – enough to see that, though the river level was normal, it was still quite turbid.

Intriguing holes in the riverbank

There weren’t any particularly exciting wildlife sightings to report, although I did spot some intriguing holes.

 

I did see a couple of invasive non-native species –  Himalayan balsam, as usual, and a probable sighting of Japanese knotweed. This is the first time I have spotted Japanese knotweed along by the river, and I had to use binoculars from the opposite bank to see it, so I’m not 100% sure about my identification. But I’ve shared the photos with the wildlife trust, who seem to think it is knotweed. I don’t know if it’s new here, or if I spotted it this time and missed it previously because I was doing my stretch in the opposite direction to normal. Anyway, that’s now been reported to the National Trust, who own the land, so hopefully they’ll be able to sort it out swiftly.

Japanese knotweed?

Japanese knotweed doesn’t look particularly startling (unlike Giant Hogweed), but it can be a big problem, spreading quickly and hard to get rid of. In urban areas it can grow up through patios or conservatory floors, so it’s not something you want in your garden. In the countryside it can quickly overwhelm native species.

Responding to the referendum result

Last Friday was a dark day for me, finding out the result of the referendum and trying to process the implications of that vote. I was shocked at the result – I found it hard to believe that so many people were ready to take such a big gamble. I was angry with the leaders of the Leave campaign who had deliberately and repeatedly mislead people on issues such as the cost of the EU contribution, and how that imaginary money will be spent post-Brexit. I was also angry with my fellow citizens, for falling for those lies. I was saddened and scared by what it might mean for things I value: environmental protection; workers rights among others. I was ashamed of how it must seem to my European colleagues and neighbours.

I work in London, and live in the Mole Valley, both areas where the majority of people voted to remain. Every colleague and neighbour I have spoken to about it has, like me, been saddened by result. Some have talked of their fears about what it will mean for them financially, or their work. Some have talked about leaving the country.

Things haven’t got better over the last few days. I have seen chilling reports of xenophobia surfacing. The Labour Party seems intent on self-destruction, while the candidates for next Tory leader are not reassuring. We seem no clearer on what will happen than we were on Friday. What model of Brexit will we go for? Will the United Kingdom survive Brexit? I’m deeply concerned about the direction this country is heading.

Grieving over the result is natural. But as I have worked my way through all these emotions (I’m not through them yet – they’re all still mixed up inside me), I have become convinced that’s not enough. That’s easily said, but what can or should I do? I don’t have the full answer yet, and it may take a while to work out.

Should I stay or should I go?

Leaving the country for somewhere new and more attuned to my values is tempting. I’ve considered sounding out colleagues in Africa or Canada. But I love this country (or at least bits of it) – its hills and woods and coast. I love its wildlife. Leaving would feel like washing my hands of it. A selfish act.

Staying to fight?

If I am to stay, I have to try to protect the things I love. It’s not going to be good enough to bury my head in the sand. On Friday, for the first time in my life, I joined a political party. Until now I have avoided party politics. No party completely represented my views. It seemed an ugly game. But now is the time to engage more with politics, as so much will need to be decided over the next few years. It’s no time to take a step back. Signing online petitions isn’t enough. I don’t know what will be enough, but joining a political party is a start.

Praying for peace and love

That sounds fluffy and hippyish. But it’s not. This country feels divided, with old hatreds bubbling to the surface. Lots of people are hurting, scared or angry.  There doesn’t seem to be a leader coming forward who can bring unity. I am a Christian, and I believe we need God’s grace in this situation. I will redouble my prayers for this country. And I will try to be loving in all my interactions with others.

 

I don’t have the answer. I don’t have a neat way to deal with the situation we’re in. I’m scared by what the future might hold. But I think this plan is enough for now, until it’s clearer what more is needed.

The EU referendum: a vote to ‘remain’ is a vote for the environment

If you live in the UK, you can’t have missed the fact that, on 23 June, we get to vote on whether to stay part of the EU, or leave. The standard of the debate, from both sides, has been very poor: negative, fear-mongering, continued use of misleading statistics, and focusing on just a couple of issues. It seems to have turned into a Tory leadership contest. This has put many people off engaging with the topic – I have to admit, I haven’t watched the TV debates and interviews, because I know they’re not going to address the issues I care about. And even if they did, I don’t trust the people spearheading the campaigns to tell me the truth. But deciding whether to stay in the EU or leave is a really important step, so I think we (in the UK) all have a duty to look into it, beyond the negative headlines.

There are many important implications to consider when deciding whether to stay or leave. The impact it will have on the economy, jobs, protection of workers, immigration and free movement of people, security, science, sovereignty… the list goes on and on. It’s an important and complex decision. This post will try to summarise some of the environmental issues to consider.

The first thing to acknowledge in any discussion about the EU is that it’s not perfect. While some of its laws, policies and decisions have protected the UK environment, others have had a less positive effect, creating perverse incentives (eg. the Common Agricultural Policy). That means we need to weigh  up the pros and cons. This is made harder by the uncertainty over what would happen if we did leave the EU. The Wildlife Trusts, WWF and the RSPB commissioned an independent report to look into these issues, and I’ve drawn on the summary here, together with other sources, as this issue clearly goes beyond my personal knowledge and expertise.

What has the EU done for the UK environment?

Our environment was not in a good state in the 1970s and 80s. We  had the highest acid rain-causing sulphur dioxide emissions in the EU and our seas were polluted with sewage. Many of our species had suffered huge declines due to pollution or lack of protection. Membership of the EU has led to:

  • Otter
    The come-back of the otter is thanks to improved river water quality, due to EU legislation

    Substantial improvements in air and water pollution, thanks to EU legislation – we have cleaner rivers, beaches, drinking water and air thanks to the EU. The revival of species like the otter, thanks to our cleaner rivers, is testament to this.

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting
    Beach on the Cornish coast
    Our beaches are cleaner, thanks to the EU

    renewable energy

  • Protection of species and our most sensitive wild places, mainly through the Birds and Habitats Directives – according to Friends of the Earth, before the Directives we were losing 15% of our protected sites a year – that’s now down to
    Torpid dormouse in nest
    EU legislation protects species like dormice

    1%

  • Increasing recycling and improving waste management
  • Banning harmful chemicals, including some pesticides
  • Legislation to protect our seas
  • The requirement to carry out an environmental impact assessment if developers are planning a major development, or development in an environmentally sensitive area, so impact on wildlife can be taken into account in decision-making, and plans made to mitigate it, if appropriate

On the downside, the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy have created incentives for unsustainable practices which damage our environment and wildlife. And the TTIP deal currently being negotiated between the EU and USA could be very bad news for the environment.

Working together to tackle big issues

The EU brings together member states, and allows them to work together to tackle important issues. It’s particularly useful for issues

Swallow skimming the beach
We need cross-border action to protect migrating birds, like this swallow

that have cross-border implications. Many of the environmental challenges we face do have cross-border implications, for example climate change, marine pollution, fish stocks, protection of migrating birds… Nature doesn’t acknowledge national boundaries, so some issues, by their very nature, are better tackled in a united way by many nations.

Brexit uncertainty

It’s very unclear what will happen if the UK decides to leave the EU. One scenario would be that the UK leaves the EU but stays in the European Economic Area (EEA) or the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and thereby retains access to the single market, following models similar to those in countries such as Norway or
Switzerland. This would mean that many EU environmental laws would still be mandatory in the UK, but there would be exceptions – particularly the Birds Directive, the Habitats Directive and the Bathing Water Quality Directive, which were responsible for several of the benefits from the EU listed above. There’s a clear risk that we would lose some of the protection for birds, special habitats, and improvements in water quality for our beaches.

Another scenario would be that the UK leaves the EU and sits as a completely independent State outside the EEA and EFTA agreements. This would mean EU environmental legislation would no longer apply. Our government would be responsible for developing legislation on all environmental issues. Given the current focus on economic growth at all costs, that prospect fills me with terror.

Over the years, a lot of the criticisms of the EU (or at least the criticisms that aren’t thinly veiled xenophobia) have been around the level of red tape the EU imposes. I’m not saying there is no unnecessary bureaucracy in the EU, but a lot of the ‘red tape’ those critics are referring to are the rules that protect our environment (or workers rights). In the current political climate, we’re unlikely to see adequate protection of the environment enshrined in any post-EU UK legislation – it will be an opportunity for the proponents of deregulation to quietly get rid of annoying rules that protect our natural world, and ourselves. Do you trust Boris Johnson, the man who buried negative findings about air pollution around hundreds of London’s primary schools breaching EU limits, to be involved in developing a newly independent UK’s environmental legislation? Or George Osborne, who has publically condemned the EU’s habitats directive?

There’s also no reason to assume that if we’re no longer part of the EU, we won’t end up with something along the lines of TTIP anyway: the UK has been one of the drivers of some of the most damaging clauses of the potential deal, and would need to look for trade deals with other partners if we were to leave the EU.

Areas for improvement

Friends of the Earth, in their position paper on the EU referendum, spell out some of the improvements they are campaigning for in how the EU operates. This includes changing priorities away from economic growth and free trade, improving their laws, and increasing democratic accountability. But despite this need for change, Friends of the Earth are still strongly advocating for the UK to remain part of the EU, as the benefits to the environment outweigh the harms.

The EU isn’t perfect, and it’s environmental record isn’t flawless. But its legislation does provide significant protection to our wildlife and natural resources. By being part of something bigger we can more effectively tackle cross-border issues, which pose some of the biggest environmental challenges we face today. And by being part of the EU we can try to influence it positively. The MEPs we vote for will have a say. If we leave the EU, we lose that voice.

This referendum is important. If you care about the issues I talk about here, please vote on 23 June.